AIDS AND RELIGION IN
Bishop Priamo Tejeda
The child was
beautiful, like every child. I have asked myself many times if there are
"ugly" children, or not beautiful. I have not seen them. Even when they
are ill, they retain that exceptional beauty that is so proper to
children. This one was not only beautiful, he was sweet and alert. So I
asked him, "Do you pray to God?" And he answered: "Yes, I do, every
night." Then I asked him again, "And when you pray, what do you tell
God?" "When I pray," the beautiful child said in a very convinced
manner, "I pray and ask God If I could help him a little bit."
COMPASSION AND ACTION: ROMAN CATHOLIC
My first contact
with the reality of HIV/AIDS was very peculiar. It happened many years
ago. It was at the beginning of the pandemic in a small city, Bani, in
the Dominican Republic. I was delivering a lecture in the Cathedral Hall
on the realities of this new illness called AIDS--in Spanish, SIDA.
There was a question and answer period at the end of the talk and three
men, one after another denied vehemently the existence of the virus
causing the illness: One said all of it had been invented by the priests
and the Church to try to prevent men from having fun, having sex. The
other two said it was all political and had been invented by the F.B.I.
In other words, AIDS was an invention; it did not exist.
I realized right
then and there, back in 1983, that one of the most important things to
do was to fight ignorance. There was a need to organize seminars and
lectures and panels at all levels of the civil society. There was need
to preach about it in our homilies. Yes, definitely teaching had a role,
an important role to play.
INTERNATIONAL, a Catholic network for relief, social action and human
promotion, established in some 150 countries of the world, during its
General Assembly in 1987 in Rome decided to establish an international
group for HIV/AIDS. This worldwide group, now a Task Force, has existed
for almost 12 years. Its members, from all the continents, meet
regularly every 8 or 9 months, and have stimulated the national and
diocesan levels of Catholic Charities to get involved in the work of
HIV/AIDS through education programs, support groups, housing, day care
centers, etc. Even a manual for care givers has been published, as well
as liturgical material for celebrations of the care, compassion and hope
that are needed to deal with this pandemic. In the middle of the horror
and the fear of death, rejection and prejudice that the pandemic had
created, there was need of a space for reflection, for love and
understanding, for compassion and acceptance, and for commitment.
presented the Catholic Church and to all churches with a big challenge:
There was the
challenge to evaluate the role and the need of SEX EDUCATION: THE
The challenge of
offering compassion to situations that were considered contrary to the
principles of sexual morality but that had to do a lot with human
nature, and were seen through an inflexible interpretation of the
concept of natural law. And the challenge to respect personal decisions,
withhold judgement, and consider each human being, a creature of God, in
God’s image and likeness and therefore worthy of respect, love and
The church had to
face these challenges of tolerance and acceptance. Yes, the illness
brought about suffering and had devastating effects in society in
general. We Christians were not transported to another planet. AIDS was
happening in our midst, in our society, in our church, in our homes.
It was part of
our lives. . . . we Christians had to face the challenge and be
compassionate, if not out of conviction, at least out of necessity.
AIDS; MY COUNTRY, YOUR COUNTRY HAD AIDS. MY CHURCH, YOUR CHURCH, HAD
I remember a very
unique experience of "conscientization." In Honduras, Central America in
the diocese of Choluteca, the Bishop, Raul Corriveau, organized a
diocesan HIV/AIDS Awareness Week. For a week, a team offered talks,
explanations, advise to all levels of the church and to society at
large. The priests, sisters and seminarians were involved, the lay
leaders both male and female, the teachers, the students, the military,
the local government, the nurses and doctors, all other professions.
There was not a level of society untouched.
We often say, in
the Latin American church, that "the poor evangelize us". Yes, they
continuously teach us gospel values with their daily activities and
attitudes, with their compassion. Antonia's husband had died of AIDS,
two years before. Antonia herself had AIDS and she agonized over the
future of her four children.- So she called the parish priest of San
Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, and told him she wanted him to do
something about it, since she was about to die. Father Miguel Angel
explained the situation to the community at all Masses the next Sunday.
The community was very poor; they had just the bare essentials. Yet they
were also wealthy: they had faith, love, hope and compassion!
children were taken in by two families, who already had three and four
children each. They were accepted as members of the family. Very little
consideration was given to new expenses and family budget or bedroom
size or even beds; they would share with the children what they had,
period. It was so simple: the orphans found a home.
The church cannot
stress enough the responsibility of the Christian community in the face
of the pandemic. While the involvement of government is needed, states
and counties, the grass-roots level, the Christian community, as we like
to call it in Latin America, plays a very important role in the ministry
It is this
conviction that has moved some dioceses to establish ministries of
HIV/AIDS with participation of a small team in each parish. The team is
given some training in caregiving and its members become the helpers of
those who are sick, visiting and comforting them, as well as their
relatives and friends. They become volunteers to visit the homes and
offer the support of faith and hope. Since most of those infected with
the virus do not have access to the medicines or treatment that are
taken for granted here in the States, the role of faith and hope and the
element of compassion become more important.
Bubula is a
beautiful human being. She is a woman of faith, very poor, and she has
joined the team for the ministry of HIV/AIDS in her parish. Faith is the
key element in her life and she is visiting on a regular basis Juan, a
man over sixty years of age, a patient in the local hospital. Now, the
doctors know Juan has AIDS, and the nurses do not want to go near him.
They are frightened at the possibility of contagion. They are prejudiced
and reject him; they ask him to leave the hospital. But Juan is a
migrant from Haiti, all
alone, and has
nowhere to go. Bubula, a widow, lives alone and she decides to take him
home. She feeds him, washes his clothes, prays with him. All the other
members of the parish team pitch in and help. Juan dies peacefully and
happy several months later, having experienced compassion and love in
different churches and religious traditions have the challenge of UNITY
in the field of compassion. The divisions that exist among us continue
to be, in my opinion, a scandal and a lack of testimony to our faith.
Let us hope that what theology and the Word of God have not been able to
achieve yet, solidarity and compassion in facing this pandemic might
bring about. Let us continue to hope and pray that, united in
compassion, we can cast out fear, ignorance, prejudice and judgement,
and can move forward efficaciously in defeating this pandemic. Let us
hope that every Christian, every believer in any comer of the World,
will pray to God and ask in all simplicity, like the child at the
beginning of this paper, if we "could help Him a little bit."
No, the pandemic
is not over yet. We have to continue to fight ignorance and apathy.
There is much work and much prayer to be done. There is much unity to be